Attack on gas-guzzling cars and plastic bags fails to satisfy environmentalists

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The Independent Online

A promised tax on plastic bags, a pledge to make all new buildings zero-carbon, higher charges for flights, a crackdown on new gas-guzzling cars and a handout to less thirsty ones – Alistair Darling's budget contained a number of conspicuous green measures yesterday, but they were not enough to satisfy environmental campaigners.

The essence of their charge was that while the new moves were welcome, the Chancellor was tinkering at the margins of environmental problems, and the Government was still not addressing fundamentally the long-term issue of how to cope with climate change. In particular, green campaigners were unhappy that Mr Darling put off an expected 2p rise in fuel duty from April until October.

"Suspending the promised increase in fuel duty has fatally undermined his boast that this is a green budget, and tinkering with taxes on planes and cars isn't going to stop new runways and roads being built," said the executive director of Greenpeace, John Sauven, in a comment that was echoed by other activists.

"The Chancellor should have channelled cash into clean technologies, energy efficiency projects and support for the renewables industry. On all these counts, his measures have failed to match the scale of the challenge."

There was no denying, however, that Mr Darling had addressed environmental concerns in a number of ways, with the most eye-catching of his proposals a threat to bring in a tax on plastic bags next year, if supermarkets and other retailers do not make sufficient progress in phasing them out.

This was a clear response to a newspaper campaign about plastic bags, which Gordon Brown himself has publicly endorsed. About 13 billion single-use bags are given out free to UK shoppers every year, and there are widespread concerns about their environmental effects as waste, not least in the marine environment, where endangered sea turtles mistake them for their jellyfish prey and are killed when they ingest them.

On the more serious issue of climate change, Mr Darling outlined several new proposals for cutting Britain's emissions of the greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide which are causing global warming, leading with road transport, which accounts for nearly a quarter of the total.

He announced a new pollution-based banding system for road tax – Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) – which promised new penalties and rewards for the dirtiest and cleanest cars. From 2009/10 there will be six new VED bands including a top band for cars emitting more than 255g of CO2 per kilometre. These cars will pay an increased VED rate of £425, while cars emitting 150g or less per kilometre will pay less.

But the real carrot-and-stick signal came in his announcement that from 2010/11, the most-polluting new gas guzzlers would pay a first-year VED rate of £950, while those new cars with a 130g/k or less emission level would pay nothing at all.

Other measures to cut carbon emissions were aimed at aviation and buildings. Mr Darling said he would increase by a further 10 per cent the proposed new flight tax – air passenger duty – due to be applied from November this year, but this drew the riposte from environmentalists that it would make no practical difference to emissions growth. "Increasing the revenue from flight taxes is hypocritical posturing from a Chancellor who wants to see Heathrow and Stansted almost double in size," said Greenpeace transport campaigner Anita Goldsmith. "The modest carbon savings will be wiped out in no time by a third runway at Heathrow."

Mr Darling also decreed that all new non-domestic buildings would have to be zero-carbon from 2019 – a provision which is already due to apply to new housing from 2016.

The main points


Non-domestic buildings zero-carbon by 2019


New flight tax to increase by 10 per cent


New look at road pricing promised


Crackdown on new gas guzzlers


Levy next year if stores do not cut back


No road tax initially for cleanest new cars

'They just haven't been strong enough' - Kate Salter, 27

Kate Salter, 27, believes the Budget failed to deliver enough new measures to help protect the environment. She said: "They just haven't been strong enough. There is still too much responsibility being placed on individuals to be environmentally-friendly, but that won't change things fast enough."

Ms Salter, who lives in Lewisham, South-east London, with her son, two, added: "They should ban plastic bags, not charge for them. I use a rucksack or recycle old bags. The only way you will get everyone to do that is if plastic bags are just not available.

"I'm pleased they have put money aside to help people make their homes greener but it would be better if it was made compulsory. They're worried it would be political suicide if they forced people to change the way they live, but that's what they have to do."